South African President F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela speak at a news conference during negotiations between the government and the ANC in Cape Town, South Africa on May 6, 1990. Source:Gallo Images/Sunday Times
South African President F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela speak at a news conference during negotiations between the government and the ANC in Cape Town, South Africa on May 6, 1990. Source:Gallo Images/Sunday Times

Media consultant Frank Greer and I were invited in 1993 to speak to a workshop for 80 African National Congress campaign organizers, including Nelson Mandela and his top people. Our talk was a mix of high strategy and technical campaign mechanics. When we finished, Mandela, sitting in the front row, raised his hand and asked the first question.

“In your experience,” he asked, “is it better to have a low building with functions spread out across a few big floors or to have a tall building with functions on each of many floors?”

The campaign had yet to begin, but Mandela was already pretty deep in the weeds. He not only grasped, but also cared about campaign infrastructure and mechanics. He was a transformative leader, with extraordinary judgment, strong will and an unwavering commitment to justice, not just in South Africa but everywhere, instinctively.

I spent two decades working to defeat apartheid -- the greatest injustice of our time -- and strengthen the ANC. I understood the symbolic power of Mandela’s rise. What I hadn’t bargained on was Mandela the politician -- a leader deeply engaged in campaign strategy and tactics in the first truly democratic election in South Africa.

Mandela was absolutely determined to lead a modern, cutting-edge campaign, drawing heavily on research to achieve his goals. He was also desperate to learn. Amazingly, he would sit through a two-hour presentation on a national poll, watch a focus group from behind a glass wall and page through graphs before thinking about the implications. He was disappointed when the campaign directors thought this a poor use of his time: He wanted to be the polling director.

Presidential Debate

He had a single debate with his opponent, President F.W. de Klerk, for which we prepared as any American presidential campaign would, with days devoted to briefing books and mock debates. With the debate scheduled late in the campaign, Mandela was overconfident in his ability to dominate de Klerk; he ended up embarrassed in his first mock debate.

The former political prisoner became an intense student, going to bed with briefing books balanced on his legs. He listened to advice on how to handle issues, but once he had decided on his course, he was unmovable.

Greer and I encouraged him to be uplifting and avoid attacking de Klerk, which gained the campaign nothing. Madiba went after de Klerk from the first second and never stopped. He accused the president of allowing the police to perpetuate violence, calling him “very, very stubborn” about the complicity of authorities in the disorder. Suddenly, at the close of the debate, Mandela turned and shook hands with de Klerk.

“Let us work together for reconciliation and nation building,” Mandela said. “I am proud to hold your hand for us to grow solid together.”

Afterward, he told us mischievously: “I knew you and Frank would be mad at me, so I did it for you.”

Like every great politician, Mandela respected voters and took seriously the way they formed political judgments. Indeed, he thought that a democratic leader must have popular sensibilities and take into account popular sentiment, even if the leader has a clear sense of direction and mission. When campaigning, Mandela stood alone on a platform. Members of the crowd could climb up on a platform equal in height to ask the great man questions. Madiba was really touched by these moments of connection. Over time, these People’s Forums became his principal mode of campaigning.

My survey research revealed a deep malaise and impatience among black voters with the protracted negotiations over the transfer of power. Talks had dragged on for three years as black-on-black violence grew, and voters were describing the ANC -- including Mandela and other leaders -- as out of touch. Almost everyone on the campaign resisted that finding, and many resented the public’s impatience. But Madiba listened and observed a focus group to confirm it.

As he campaigned, he began to see the election as a vehicle for building a national mandate consistent with his vision of a post-apartheid South Africa that would benefit all its people. That hadn’t been true at the beginning, when the campaign rallied under the banner, “Now is the Time.” This slogan was mostly about power -- about blacks gaining control of the government after a long and brutal exclusion. Increasingly, it was interpreted as a call to black Africans, not to Coloureds, Asians and whites. Madiba embraced a new theme, “A Better Life for All.” He had had no patience for the post-colonial governments of Africa that held democratic elections once and then did little for their people. He also had little patience for the Pan African Congress in South Africa that sought power for black Africans only. For Mandela, the theme conveyed a commitment to building an all-race government and to making life better.

Mandela was a great man. But it was his greatness as a politician that enabled him to make that promise, and to deliver on it.

(Stanley B. Greenberg, chief executive officer of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc., is the author with James Carville of “It’s the Middle Class Stupid!")

To contact the writer of this article: Stanley Greenberg at nzdunkwicz@gqrr.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.